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Poachers into gamekeepers: assessment preparation through assessment design

May 12, 2013
While discussing strategies for exam preparation with my upper-intermediate class the other week, it became clear to me that the best way to prepare for an exam is to prepare an exam. The better able you are to understand what goes through examiners’ minds when selecting texts and/or setting questions, the easier it will be for you to produce the answers that the examiner is expecting.


With this in mind, I have a framework here for a lesson in which students prepare their own exam papers and use them as assessment practice. I used it to prepare my upper-intermediate students for the listening and reading components of the SQA Intermediate 2 ESOL exam, but it could be used to prepare students for any exam. I think it would work at any level, but it is probably more effective from B1 upwards, as these students are better able to articulate their reflections on why exams are the way they are. I did it in a single 3-hour lesson, but you can split it over shorter lessons or set some of it as homework. Please feel free to try it (or something like it!), and I’d be grateful if you would let me know how it goes.


  • To familiarise students with the question types they are likely to encounter in their exam.
  • To allow students to get a deeper understanding of why such question types are used.
  • To raise awareness to sub-skills that need to be used in order to answer certain question types.
  • To provide practice and preparation for a reading/listening assessment/exam.
  • To create a bank of exam practice materials that can be used by other groups in the future.

Your students will ideally have access to computers with an Internet connection, but this isn’t absolutely necessary.

Stage 1 – Identify

Ask students to think about the reading and listening papers of their exam and brainstorm the different question types that are used (multiple choice, true/false/not given, summary completion etc.) Make a list and in feedback put them up on the board.

Stage 2 – Reflect

Ask students to discuss the following questions:

-By using these question types, what are the examiners testing?

-Which types of questions do you find easier/more difficult to answer? Why is this?

In feedback, clarify some of the sub-skills that are being assessed (e.g. identify genre, identify the writer’s opinion, get a general understanding of the text, identify specific information etc.)

Stage 3 – Select a Topic

Tell the students that they are going to play the role of examiners and design a test to assess other students in the class. Give them a list of topics (sport, film, the outdoors, business etc) and ask them to choose one they are interested in.

Stage 4 – Select a Text

Split the class in half – a reading group and a listening group. Give each group a selection of listening/reading texts and ask them to choose one that is related to their topic. I used Radio Scotland podcasts for the listening group and the Herald newspaper website for the reading group. You could do something similar i.e. direct them to websites for authentic materials that are appropriate for your context – this has the added advantage of practising web-based research skills. If you can’t give your students internet access you can just use a selection of texts and recordings from existing materials, but don’t provide the accompanying questions (the idea is that the students make up their own questions). Each student should be working with a different text.

Stage 5 – Get the Gist

As a first reading/listening task, allow the students to get a general understanding of their texts by asking them to summarise the content in no more than 5 words.

Stage 6 – Get the Detail

Get the students to write down 5 interesting facts/key pieces of information about their text.

Stage 7 – Set the Questions

The students now use their five points plus their summary statement as the answers to their test questions. They therefore have to devise 6 questions to elicit the information they had previously identified. As the answers include general and specific information, the test will be sure to focus on more than just one reading/listening sub-skill. Remind students to use a range of question types that appear in the exam they are preparing for; this also ensures a variety of sub-skills and strategies will be used.

Stage 8 – Peer Testing

Pair students so that someone who prepared a reading test works with someone who prepared a listening test. Get students to swap tests and texts. Students now read/listen to the new text and answer the test questions that their partner devised.

Stage 9 – Peer Feedback

After completing the test, students get back into the same pairs, mark each other’s tests and discuss the answers.

Stage 10 – Reflection

Students stay in their pairs and discuss the following questions (or similar):

-What did you find easier, making up your own test or doing your partner’s test?

-How similar were your partner’s questions to the questions in the real exam?

-How could the questions be more like the ones in the exam?

Stage 11 – Revisions

Students take on board the feedback from their partner about any changes that they should make to their test. They then write up their questions again, making any revisions that they feel are necessary. This should be word processed if possible.

Stage 12 – Sharing

If you have a VLE (e.g. Moodle) get the students to insert the link to their reading/listening text into their word-processed question paper and post the document onto the VLE.  This will create a bank of practice tests that all students can attempt for homework. If you don’t have a VLE or access to computers, the students can write their tests up neatly. They can then be photocopied along with the accompanying texts.

One Comment
  1. Ken MacDougall permalink

    Steve, I agree, and I don’t agree. The best way to prepare for an exam, is to prepare for an exam. I like your idea and have done similar things in the past, but the focus for the students (and us) has to be them getting the best grade they can.

    Recently, I’ve been using a quote from Jose Mourinho to start my exam prep classes – “You can win without the ball”. I don’t give the students the texts, just the questions and insist that they give an answer for everything. I also make them try to look at clues that one question might give to another – particularly useful for SQA exams. We then do the reading/listening and compare results. It’s amazing how well they do.

    I think what we are both getting at with these ideas is opening up the process of testing for students. If they understand it better, they’ll do better.

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